Saturday, March 05, 2016


The following is the second of five highlights from my nine years writing for the Muriel Awards, my 2010 celebration of Emma Stone's performance in Easy A.


It is a well-known claim of actors, oft attributed to the British stage star Edmund Kean but probably originated by some schlub pounding the dirt in a Greek amphitheater around the time Lysistrata had its premiere: dying is easy, but comedy is hard. As much as this deathbed classic is a Hollywood truism, there is apparently something even more difficult than peerlessly nailing a comedy role and that's getting any recognition for having done so. Of the 10 lead performance nominees at this year’s Academy Awards, seven of them bent over backward to keep their audiences from cracking a smile. (The eventual Best Actress winner delivered laugh after unintended laugh in her very serious turn as a bat-shit ballerina.) Even my own list of favorite performances, male or female, is heavily weighted toward searing dramatic turns. 

Yet year after year the performances that land at the top of my list are usually comedic in nature. (I’m thinking of Anna Faris in The House Bunny, Steve Martin in The Man with Two Brains and Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, to name but just three.) With all due respect to Michele Williams, Annette Bening, Lesley Manville and Hailee Steinfeld, only one actress this year was able to convince me, if she were to somehow hijack Doc Brown’s DeLorean and travel back to the golden age of Hollywood screwball comedy, that she could be dropped, as is, straight into competition with the high-speed royalty of the genre for all the best and brightest roles. And I’ve little doubt not only that Emma Stone could hold her own, but that she would have the likes of Carole Lombard, Marion Davies, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne and Jean Arthur looking over their shoulders when they weren’t scrambling to take her out for drinks.

In Easy A Stone effortlessly proved she had the stuff real stars are made of. In the real world, or at least in my high school, Stone's Olive Penderghast would have had every boy with a lick of sense at her feet. But here she’s nerdy and boyfriend-less (the movie’s most outrageous conceit), North Ojai High's heiress apparent to the spirit, if not the legacy or fate of Hester Prynne. Olive finds herself the object of salacious rumors, in part self-perpetuated, which result in her becoming the go-to girl for unconsummated, wholly fictitious trysts meant to prop up the reputations of her supposed partners, desperate geeks one and all. Of course the rumors go wildly out of control and Olive, in best-defense mode, embraces her nouveau-slutty persona, with results that are predictably outrageous but less predictably hilarious, and even at times painful. This young actress holds the screen without ever breaking a sweat—she’s in practically every scene of her movie, just like Oscar-winner Natalie Portman. The difference is that there’s no doubt Stone means to make us laugh.

In addition to effortless and natural appeal, Stone has got a real movie smart-ass’s way around a sharply written turn of phrase, or a squinty-smudgy smirk-mock laugh, displayed without turning the screen a red-headed shade of mean a la Molly Ringwald. (Maybe it’s her slight lisp that keeps her barbs from cutting too deep or seeming elitist.) But she can also handle the sweetness in the teen comedy recipe without feeling the need to put everything in collagen-inflated quotes or brush off the currents of love coursing through her relationship with her only-in-the-movies family in appeasement of the movie’s mockery-ready ideal demographic. Even her looks are appealingly off-kilter; her freckled nose crinkles up to meet those pale green eyes, which are spaced slightly further apart than the manual recommends and offset by her fiery red mane; and all of her features settle into a repertoire of quizzical looks, sharp glances and artfully arched eyebrows that suggest bemusement and the pursuit of the cleansing power of humor as the most potent intellectual defense against shallow high school hostility.

One thing Stone is not is a flavor-of-the-moment cutie pie. No, she’s a tart meringue, and on the strength of Easy A she’s fully ready to take on all comers for now and the foreseeable future. Like Faris, with whom she shared screen time in The House Bunny, Stone is built for the kinds of showcase vehicles that Hollywood forgot how to make 50 years ago. (With all due respect to the late, great Jane Russell, if someone ever decides to do a remake of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes there would be no need to go through all that messy auditioning and interviewing-- just give these women the ship and watch ‘em cruise.) It may be that Stone never gets another role like Olive-- her ascendance into the rebooted Spider-Man franchise bodes well for her profile, Q rating and checking account, but it’s unlikely to produce the sort of combustible energy she radiates in Easy A. As she becomes a star, I’ll eagerly await the career fulfillment of the kind of intelligence she’s displayed in her choices so far and continue to hope she remembers that anyone can take the money; it’s comedy that’s hard, and nothing worth doing comes easy. The glint in Emma Stone’s green eyes tells me that she’s ready to roll up her sleeves and get to work.


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